What has prompted people, over the course of three millennia, to look upon work and commerce as degrading and deceitful? Why have they instead tended to look upon the leisured and lordly as models of the good life?
One answer holds that people have been the dupes of false prophets, working in collaboration with evil princes, to subdue those who are the natural aristocrats of mankind.
But another thesis has lately been put forward: that economic life, involving production and trade, is a relatively new phenomenon in the world; that its maxims and mottoes have only begun to seep into mankind’s store of common wisdom; and that it has not had nearly enough time to begin shaping the biological evolution of human emotions. TOIL AND TROUBLE
Looking at a graph of world population for the human race, one sees that for most of mankind’s 2.5-million-year history (during what is called the Paleolithic Era) the rate of population growth was about 0.0015 percent per annum. By ten thousand years ago, the total population of Earth may have reached a million or more. Then came the Agricultural Revolution (or Neolithic Era). Man learned how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, and the growth rate of world population shot up to 0.1 percent per annum—a hundred-fold increase. One might suppose that this radical increase in productivity, and in man’s ability to survive, would be the object of universal thanksgiving. But one would be wrong.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau launched an attack on the view that the agricultural revolution constituted an advance. He argued that savage man (basically Paleolithic Man) was to be found “satisfying his hunger at the first oak and slaking his thirst at the first brook; finding his bed at the foot of the first tree which afforded him a repast; and, with that, all his wants supplied.”
In the two and a half centuries since Rousseau (pictured at right), his apotheosis of the noble savage has become a fixture of Western culture. And in the last half century, it has become standard wisdom. As the great Enlightenment scholar Alan Charles Kors has said, “Rousseau is the precursor of the countercultural movements of the twentieth-century that tell us that if we can only make ourselves dumb and primitive we will be happy and advanced.”
But Rousseau’s acolytes do not merely repeat his fantasies about the noble savage, for which he admitted he had no evidence. Genuine anthropologists have begun to say that he was on to something. The tone was set in the 1960s by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who declared that it was a “Neolithic prejudice” to think farming represented a civilizational advance. Hunter-gatherers, he said, spent only three to five hours a day in food production. The rest of the time was taken up with gossiping, entertaining, dancing, and napping. Life before the Agricultural Revolution was, according to Sahlins, “the original affluent society.” Because the wants of savages were not artificially inflated, they could keep bankers’ hours, even with their low level of activity. This new outlook was well summed up in Richard Lee’s study of the Kalahari San, a group of hunter-gatherers who live off the pulp and seed of the mongongo fruit. The book’s epigraph is a remark made by one member of the tribe: “Why should we sow when there are so many mongongos in the world?”
If these scholars are correct about the changes wrought by the Agricultural Revolution, perhaps the contemporary prejudice against makers is far older than the influence of Rousseau. After all, as TNI editor Robert Bidinotto often points out, environmentalists can legitimately claim to be the greatest of traditionalists, simply citing the first chapter of Genesis. And the Judaeo-Christian myth of Eden is by no means unique in extolling human passivity. In 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod said that during man’s Golden Age “the barley-giving earth asked for no toil to bring forth a rich and plentiful harvest.” According to Plutarch, the Hellenistic mathematician Archimedes “would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on [practical inventions]; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life.” And no less a representative of the practical Roman world than Cicero declared that “all craftsmen are engaged in a lowly art, for no workshop can have anything about it appropriate to a free man.”
Even the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (at left), whom no one would accuse of being a Rousseauean, wrote in his magisterial Human Action : “Our world is characterized by the phenomenon of the disutility of labor. People trade the disutility-bringing labor for the products of labor; labor is for them a source of mediate gratification.” The satirical website The Onion stated this Eden premise—that idleness is man’s happy, healthy state—with characteristic wit: “According to a report released Monday by Boston University’s School of Lifestyle Management, more than 180 trillion leisure hours were lost to work in 2004.”
Philosophically, of course, we can grasp that every action, whether labor for wages or afternoon napping, is equally an act of self-fulfillment and an act of life-sustaining value-creation. But could it be that our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers predisposes us to look upon economic production as a uniquely onerous form of value-creation, different in kind from other activities? Could it be that our Paleolithic heritage predisposes us to view the producers in our midst as disrupters of the natural and relaxed order of things? And might that, rather than the relatively recent rantings of Rousseau, be the very deepest source of the world’s antipathy to industrialists and entrepreneurs?
If our biological nature has only recently begun to evolve under the influence of the agricultural revolution, think how little time it has had to be affected by market exchange. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman wrote: “To the despair of every economist, it seems almost impossible for most people other than trained economists to comprehend how a price system works.” But why that should be, they did not say. A theory put forward by the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske of UCLA, in his book Structures of Social Life , seeks to explain the problem.
According to Fiske, a survey of the world’s social relationships shows that they can be reduced to four basic types. The first, Fiske calls “communal sharing” (CS), and he describes it as a relationship in which people treat the members of their group as undifferentiated. In such a relationship, tasks and values fall to whoever happens to be on the scene. For a contemporary example, imagine a person who is driving along and sees a crime or an accident. He calls 911. Nobody has to tell him to. He does not say that he has done it often enough in the past and now it is someone else’s turn. He does not ask what’s in it for him. Alerting emergency workers is a task that society undertakes communally.
The second type of relationship in Fiske’s scheme is “authority ranking” (AR). In these cases, each person is again part of a community, but the community is organized hierarchically and a person stands in asymmetric relationships to others. From some, he accepts the assignment of tasks and rules; to others, he gives tasks and rules. Today, these situations are most often encountered at work, but authority relationships can also occur when a group finds that its activities need to be closely coordinated: A football team must be running the same play, an orchestra must be playing at the same tempo.
The third type of relation is one based on “equality matching” (EM). If CS relationships assume that people form an undifferentiated community, and AR relationships assume asymmetrical status within the community, EM relationships assume equal status within the community. If one couple has another couple over to dinner, the second couple is expected to reciprocate on some future date. If the second couple knows that they cannot reciprocate, they will probably refuse the initial invitation.
The fourth and final relationship structure (one which Fiske does not seem to like) is called “market pricing” (MP), and it is essentially a weighing of alternatives against some underlying standard of value, as when one weighs possible purchases against the standard of how much money they will cost. Time-spent would seem to be another coin of common measure: A man in love might be willing to spend a long time writing a letter to a lady in order to secure even a brief note in return.
Could it be that our Paleolithic heritage predisposes us to view the producers in our midst as disrupters of the natural and relaxed order of things?
According to Fiske and others who accept his schema, relationships of “communal sharing” and “hierarchy ranking” have counterparts in the subhuman world. But relationships based on “equality matching” are probably distinctive to human beings, while “market pricing” relationships are absent even in hunter-gatherer societies. As a result, the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has written, our “intuitive economics” is one “based on concepts of reciprocal exchange, in which one party confers benefits on another and is entitled to an equivalent benefit in return.” In short, we tend to think of Equality Matching as being the only natural form of exchange, and that means our “understanding in [economics] is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions.” Worse still, says Pinker, Equality Matching and Market Pricing “tap into very different psychologies, one of them intuitive and universal, the other rarefied and learned, and clashes between them have been common in economic history.” He specifically mentions the absurdities of just-price laws and usury laws, and the frequent persecution of traders and middlemen.
Fortunately, mankind is not trapped in its intuitive understandings and innate emotions. For example, we have a strong tribal intuition of “Us” and “Other,” coupled with a sympathy for the former and an antipathy toward the latter.
Anthropologists observe that few people even now have more than 150 names in their address book. Nevertheless, over the last several millennia, men have gradually learned to understand that more than 150 people are worthy of respect and sympathy, until today we can think of all men as potential peers.
Indeed, in the West, we have effectively stigmatized as ignoble any feelings of antipathy that are based solely on innate otherness. But that eradication of ethnic tribalism required for its completion the Anglo-American Enlightenment creed of equality and a noble formulation of the creed in the Declaration of Independence. Currently, keeping the passions of ethic tribalism suppressed requires constant reminders of the horrors of slavery and of the Holocaust. Eradicating the primitive hatred and persecution of makers and marketers will take no less.
The requisite theory we have gotten fairly well in hand during the last half century: It is called economics. And a case could be made that the producers’ Declaration of Independence is also in hand: Ayn Rand ’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged . In fact, a case could be made that producers have already experienced a sort of holocaust: the communist experiments of the twentieth century. Taken together, this complex of facts, ideals, and history—militantly insisted upon—might finally convince the West that there is nothing in the least idealistic about econophobia. Like tribalism and racism, it is just another type of primitive thinking: false to modern realities, morally vile in its application to individuals, and ultimately destructive of decent civilization.
This article first appeared in the January 2008 print edition of The New Individualist magazine, a publication of The Atlas Society.